Alexander Maitland on a new book, Wilfred Thesiger in Africa. Various contributors. No text by Thesiger, but his African photographs are there and in an exhibition at the Pitt Rivers Museum which runs until June 5 2011.
See also Thesiger’s The Life of My Choice (1987), My Kenya Days (1994) and The Danakil Diary: Journeys through Abyssinia, 1930-34 (1996).
My Kenya Days (old-fashioned title for a book in 1994) took us to the eve of his return to London, though he said at the end of it that he hoped to die in Kenya.
No modern explorer travelled as much or so austerely or retreated to comfort so rarely, or wrote so well when he did retreat or was a better photographer. When he travelled, his camera and, in some cases, medicines, but not mainly for himself, were the only possessions which distinguished him from his local companions. No traveller was less corrupted by voyeurism or careerism.
None has shown such detestation of modern life, and contempt for its pampered ways, without being a dropout or in any way a sentimentalist. He was a proud (his word) Englishman who spent little time in England. He knew that people, including himself, were happier in the old ways of life and that the Earth was being ruined. The British Empire would serve (he perhaps did not say this explicitly), where it ruled, as a guarantor of stasis.
During the war, Thesiger fought with the Sudan Defence Force, organising the Abyssinian resistance to the Italians, and later served with the Special Operations Executive in Syria and the Special Air Service during the North African Campaign.
When man landed on the moon, Thesiger was at Lake Turkana in Kenya.
Samburu youth, near Maralal, Kenya, 1977